How About A Truth Commission On Oversight?

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As Chris writes below, trying to beat back allegations that she knew about waterboarding from the start of the practice, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted this morning that the CIA in 2002 deliberately misled Democratic leaders about the interrogation techniques it was using on prisoners in its custody. Pelosi insists that she did not know the CIA intended to use the technique, and that she only learned that it might have in 2003. She says she did not formally protest because there was no avenue for such sparring in the briefing and that, when she learned about waterboarding, she was no longer the ranking member on the intelligence committee.

A fully-fledged and sanctioned Truth Commission is still not in the cards because the Obama Administration strongly opposes one. In their view, a commission would expose secrets without any means of determining whether they're properly protected or not, and they've been warned that the nation's spy services would simply cease to function effectively if they're forced to surrender exacting details about their immediate past conduct. The administraiton further worries that the Commission would be carried out in the context of vengeance and would not focus the rage on lessons learned for the future. This, again, is the point of view senior administration officials; it may or may not be my own.

Pelosi's response and the Republican jeering only serve to re-inforce the administration's intent here. Figuring out who knew what and when might be satisfying, but wouldn't be productive. Pelosi's own words argue for a different type of a commission, one that would look at how the Congress succeeds or fails in holding the intelligence community accountable and the whether the mechanisms in place are adequate to the task. Clearly, if Pelosi truly felt that she had no recourse in a briefing to object, then the entire briefing system itself is suspect. CIA briefs Congress because Congress has an oversight function. If that function is neutered in the course of the oversight mechanism, then the mechanism needs to change.  The history of the CIA's relationship to Congress is fraught with misleading briefings, lies, Congresspersons who don't understand intelligence, intelligence officials who don't understand conference, misdeeds, omissions and distortions. And yet, aside from some vague promises by members of the intelligence community and some members of Congress, the system remains in place.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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